I thought of giving the more provocative title of—Are you a racist or casteist, here is a simple test for you—but decided to go with the more sober title that you see. Most of us do not want to be painted with a racist or a casteist paint brush and would not express such brash opinions even if we harbor subtle traits in our inner minds. The problem is sometimes we might carry these ideas subconsciously which might suddenly find an outlet in casual conversations. Of course these feelings form a continuum or a spectrum and we cannot simply categorize someone as racist unless they blatantly express themselves proclaiming the intellectual superiority of one race over another.
A few years ago while I was a graduate student, to be more precise in 2002, I was watching the World Cup soccer game between Saudi Arabia and Germany. Coming from the southern part of India and specifically the state of Kerala I found that many of the Saudi players almost looked like folks from Kerala and I naturally developed some soft corner for the team and started rooting for them. Never mind that they got thrashed at the hands of the mighty Germans eight zero. Three of us in the class were interested in soccer—one was from Turkey, the other from South Korea and I was from India. Turkey and South Korea were playing in the Cup and India wasn’t. It is doubtful whether my country will play in a soccer World Cup during my life time, but that is another story. I told my Turkish friend that I was supporting the Saudi Team possibly because I found that many of the players resembled folks from my state in India. He thought for a few seconds and commented that it smacks of a racist approach—identifying with people who resemble you. I tried to rationalize my action by saying I was just being a cheer leader for a team in a game and that he should not read much into it. But when I ponder more over it I have to concede he has a point.
Much more recently, during the last month I was in San Francisco to celebrate the 90th birthday of my mom in the company of extended family and friends. As is typical in these types of gatherings I was chatting with a few of my friends when one of them brought up the marriage of his son who just started graduate study in US. This friend is a physician from India currently working in one of the Middle East countries. I interjected and said that chances are his son will find somebody from here and asked my friend to relax and take it easy. Suddenly my friend took off like this—a marriage is just not between two individuals, it is between two families. I said I am not so sure. And he continued along these lines—“born to an upper caste family I want him to marry from the community and that too from India. As a community we have superior intellect and we have evolved in a Darwinian way with higher intelligence.” I was literally shocked to hear this. I told him that there is no scientific basis for any claim of intellectual superiority for a race or caste. And I added that if any such differences were indeed found there could be two rational explanations—one, the test wasn’t fair and two, centuries of subjugation and denial of opportunities to advance have perhaps taken a toll. And I told him that whether he realizes it or not this was the exact argument that Nazis put forth in support of exterminating the Jewish people. My friend probably realized the inherent danger in his arguments when I pointed out that these types of ideas of intellectual superiority of one group of people actually led to genocides and history is replete with many examples. He became defensive and said that everybody should be considered equal before law and not discriminated against and that will solve all problems. He just wanted his son to marry a woman from his community!I then told him that as far I am concerned the choice of my son’s marriage is his to make and I will appreciate my son’s decision.
Nobody disputes that there should be laws against all sorts of discrimination. But that is just a start and there are two problems here—the laws are applied by people and if they hold views inimical to another group of people it will tend to be reflected in their actions, that is, the enforcement of laws will be biased and prejudiced. Secondly knowledge of the laws or education in general is no guarantee against harboring dangerous opinions and viewpoints and the best current example turns out to be this friend we encountered earlier.Yes, formal learning can teach us skills, make us scholars or somewhat broaden our horizon. But it also leaves large gaps, gaping deficiencies and black holes in our understanding of the world. These are most palpable in areas that can be broadly grouped under the wide umbrella of civil rights, human rights, democratic rights, sense of justice and injustice, sense of right and wrong and man’s role in society. This is precisely the reason for our incredulous look when we are confronted with appalling and abhorrent opinions, comments, observations or statements from folks we consider highly educated in a technical sense with advanced degrees from reputed universities. Yes, they can be racist, casteist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-minority in general and anti-progress. It is clear from this that all the courses, all the lectures, all the interactions with teachers and friendships with fellow students fail to provide a critical understanding of the world or the society we live in, fail to bridge the knowledgegap and fail to inculcate a value system based on higher ethical and moral principles.
As Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University nicely put it recently, in the end it all boils down to this kernel, this essence: “When we see another person, do we see them as another human being, not just equal to us in law, but someone that we can listen to, learn from and fall in love with? Or not?”That is the real test of humanity. And I would add for starters—at least let our sons and daughters fall in love with whomever they choose; let us grow up and broaden our horizon to concede that and sleep well over that. It is not too late to chart that course and the world will be a better place if we can do it. ©
Dr. Subramani Mani is an associate professor in the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and currently resides in Albuquerque, NM, USA. He is a strong advocate of civil rights and human rights. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.